Irish Ayes

Paul MacCluskey Paul MacCluskey’s luck appears to emanate from his quick mind and his ability to say yes when the time is right

Paul MacCluskey, the owner of Hinesburg Auto Sales on Vermont 116, brings a zest for life and an agile sense of humor to the used-car business.

by Rosalyn Graham

A conversation with Paul MacCluskey is liberally laced with references to the luck of the Irish. Hearing the story of how he came to the United States for a short visit with his soccer-playing buddies from Dublin — who themselves had come to America on soccer scholarships — and is today the owner of Hinesburg Auto Sales, brings to mind a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

MacCluskey grew up in Ireland, the son of a Scottish father and Irish mother. His father was a bricklayer, and his mother? “Well there were nine of us, so she had her hands full,” he says with a grin.

Like his friends, he, too, had been offered a scholarship to bring his soccer skills to Fairleigh Dickinsen University in Teaneck, N.J., in about 1984, but he turned it down. “I was young and stupid and in love,” he laments.

MacCluskey stayed in Dublin, working as a carpenter, until 1987, when he decided it was time to visit his friends in the States. That was when the luck of the Irish kicked in. He met Lisa Colt, a Vermonter who was also a student at Fairleigh Dickinsen.

“That’s where the story thickens,” he says. “John Keenan, my best friend when I grew up in Ireland, married his girl from college, Mary Ann, and she and Lisa were college mates and best friends. So it was a good situation.” The romance with Lisa influenced another key decision in his life; he decided he would be a carpenter in the United States, and he never went home.

Not all of the steps along MacCluskey’s path seemed lucky at the time. His carpenter career ended with a fall in 1988 that left him with serious injuries to his back and legs and a long period of recuperation. The client whose house he had been working on owned three used-car lots in New York City and gave him a job. “I couldn’t do much,” MacCluskey recalls. “He had me sit at a desk and answer phone calls.”

It soon became apparent that his outgoing nature, big smile and easy rapport with customers made him ideally suited for the used-car business. The charming Irish brogue probably helped, too.

Paul MacCluskey Finding mechanics who can handle the sophistication of modern cars and work on older models has been difficult, but, at press time, a full-timer was scheduled to start at the end of June. Tim DeCell, a former mechanic who moved away, pays a visit.

What he didn’t care for was the New York lifestyle, and in 1991 — which turned out to be a big year for MacCluskey — he and Lisa returned to her home in Underhill, where they were married “right there in her parents’ house,” and he went to work for Burlington Chrysler-Plymouth. He was a salesman and eventually sales manager there for five years, he says, until one day he realized, “If I’m going to work 70 hours a week, I would be better to work for myself.”

For a year, MacCluskey sold cars from his front yard. In 1997, he set up business on a lot across from Giroux Body Shop on Vermont 116 in Hinesburg. He started out with four cars on the lot and his office and shop in a Quonset hut.

MacCluskey has a quick and friendly smile, which helps him build rapport with customers. He encourages them to take cars they like to their own mechanics for check-ups, and suggests they also drive them home so that other decision-makers in the family can weigh in on the decision. These policies are based, he says, on his conviction that, “If something happens a month down the road, we’re still friends.” They are policies that added up to a business that grew and earned itself a niche in the community.

Customers who bought cars from MacCluskey back then are still customers and friends today. Janice Bauch of Hinesburg had just moved to Vermont when she bought a used Chevy from Hinesburg Auto Sales. A couple of years later she drove by the little lot and a Toyota RAV 4 caught her eye, she says.

Not long ago, she moved into what she describes as “a beautiful blue SUV” — a 2003 Land Rover Freelander, MacCluskey confirms. A former gift shop owner in Hinesburg who now has a small business photographing pets, Bauch admits she likes to support local businesses, but adds, “Paul has always lived up to his word. He is so honest and open and he stands by his products.”

The friendly service is a bonus, she says. “When I had the car in for service, he would drive me home, a courtesy that I really appreciated.” As a thank you, Rauch took a photograph of MacCluskey’s 13-year-old Sheltie, Kaiser, and took it in to hang on the office wall.

“My little dog blew her away,” MacCluskey says.

His luck continued two years ago when Giroux Body Shop, his landlord, decided it needed the land on which his used-car lot was operating in order to expand its business. “Within a week of him giving me the notice, this lot went on sale,” MacCluskey says of his current location, which abuts the former property. “Where’s the best place to move your business? The lot right next door!”

A bit of a kerfuffle ensued after MacCluskey bought the lot and was faced with the challenge of what to do with the little 200-year-old house on the corner. Initially the town told him to take it down. He had begun the process, he says, when its age prompted a campaign to preserve it, and “somebody called and said we have to stop.”

His creative solution, which pleased the historic preservation folks and created a real conversation piece for MacCluskey’s new building, was to take down the frame of the old post-and-beam building, and reassemble it as the interior of his new office. The old wooden beams and rafters, with their historic craftsmanship and hand-made nails, make the first floor showroom very unlike the typical new building or the standard car showroom.

Paul MacCluskeyKaiser, MacCluskey’s 13-yearold Sheltie, handles a lot of the company’s public relations, even inspiring a customer to shoot and frame a photo of him for the office wall.

“It was pretty tough, but I’m glad I did it,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “I’m still looking for my historical plaque, though. Now what’s up with that?”

Just inside the front door, a colorful concrete floor with an Irish shamrock design sketched into the concrete adds another charming personal note.

Personal is a good word for describing MacCluskey’s business. On a particular spring day, a young mother stops in to see how the sale of her old car is progressing and how soon she might get the minivan she needs. A young man from town stops in to inquire about a new arrival on the lot and walks out with the keys to take it for a test drive. The historic preservation specialist, who took down the old house and rebuilt it inside Hinesburg Auto Sales, stops by to chat and to ask how soon a mechanic is going to be able to diagnose a mysterious problem with his truck.

Life isn’t all roses, or even shamrocks, for MacCluskey. The problem of finding mechanics is a major one still facing him as he completes the move into his new building. He has a brand-new shop, ready to provide the service for cars he sells and the repairs to vehicles he takes in trade, but it’s hard to find the right mechanics who can handle the sophistication of modern cars as well as work on the older models, and provide the quality of customer service that has become his trademark. “They’re out there,” says MacCluskey, “working on Toyotas, Audis, Chevys, but with a used-car lot, you’ve got to get an all-arounder.”

He called in a couple of guys to help him out, he says, and at press time, a full-timer was scheduled to start at the end of June.

The company’s linchpin is MacCluskey’s office manager, Heidi Dally, his sister-in-law and a person who not only ensures that all the paperwork of the complex business is kept in good order, but is also willing to tackle any project he suggests. She recently designed his new website.

MacCluskey almost waxes poetic as he tells about his home in Jericho with Lisa and their 6-year-old daughter, Annabelle. He regrets he doesn’t have as much time to spend working in the garden as he would like, but says he enjoys the view of Mount Mansfield and the green space next to his place where wildlife thrives. He loves the fact that his father-in-law and Heidi and her three children live close by, so Annabelle can be near her cousins, and he describes his back-roads drive to work every day as “marvelous.”

“There’s no traffic; I can turn the cell phone off and prepare myself for the day,” he says with a slight sigh. Lucky, eh? •